Elizabeth Morrissey Colloquium


Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm

Displaying the Hidden: Illustrating Secret Rituals in the Ishiyama-dera Illustrated Handscroll

Elizabeth Morrissey, MA Candidate, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh

Esoteric Buddhist traditions in Japan often centered their practices on the concept of secrecy, both in doctrine and in the practice of certain rituals.  This emphasis led to the restriction of certain ceremonies from the view and participation of outsiders, be they lay persons or the uninitiated of their own community.  It would be understandably unusual to document one of these secret events in a visual medium, however, paintings of what appear to be two hidden rituals can be found in an illustrated handscroll form the fourteenth century entitled the Ishiyama-dera engi-e, or Illustrated Legends of Ishiyama Temple.  The choice to hide some aspect of a painting from the viewer (and usually from certain figures within the painting itself) is not in itself unusual, but the choice to display an explicitly secret ritual as being hidden raises several questions.  Why were these rituals included within this particular handscroll?  Does their illustration reflect the actuality of the performance of secret rituals or do these paintings merely employ an artistic conceit, used to mask the artist’s lack of personal experience with esoteric rituals?  In order to answer these questions, this presentation will analyze the illustrations of two secret rituals depicted in the Ishiyama-dera engi-e.